Aiming to make a splash: Father, son duo present story of Jonah, more at Willow Leaves

HOPE — It hardly seems surprising that the co-creator of the biblical dinner theater musical on Jonah hopes that Willow Leaves of Hope serves its finest fish dinner when the show makes its splashy local debut Feb. 7.

Oh, it’s more than just the obvious connection between the food and the fun of the show, according to keyboardist and singer John Thomas Oaks. He’s the former Broadway musician and current Knoxville, Tennessee resident who has long referred to his whimsical, wondrous tunes as Big Apple-achian Showpop.

“They just have an incredible fish plate,” Oaks said, who had lunch at Willow Leaves recently.

Oaks and his father, Tommy Oaks, will open their weekend in Hope with “A Whale of a Tale.” It opens with a musical question as straightforward as a scallywag’s swordplay:

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“Did ever a man set sail

Who didn’t come back with a tale?”

Before one can even answer, father and son are steering their figurative ship and swashbuckling story via the observation of pirates and keeping an audience on the edge of its seat as if it’s about to be asked to walk the plank, matey.

Columbus resident Al White, currently serving as interim pastor in Cortland and a longtime friend of the Oaks, invited the duo to Willow Leaves.

“They’re so unique,” White said.

How so?

“Tommy’s the only pastor I know with a doctorate in storytelling (from the University of Tennessee),” White said. “And John Thomas is a musical prodigy. His music and creativity are incredible. Any song, any key, any style — he can do it.”

The pair got the Willow Leaves gig partly by plopping at the eatery’s piano after lunch and belting out an impromptu tune for the venue owners. They sang a number from their musical “Star Queen” about the story of biblical Esther.

On Saturday, they will present their original “The Legend of Wiley Jake,” a Western spoof of Scripture’s battle between Jacob and Esau. They will perform “Country Biscuit Jamboree” which they describe as everything from storytelling to foot-stomping fun.

The two who travel nationwide are in Indiana more than any other state, and in Columbus so often that they sometimes can be seen shopping at a local supermarket.

“We might as well have dual citizenship (in Indiana and Tennessee),” Oaks said with a laugh. “Maybe people like our Southern accents — and then they laugh and talk about us behind our back so they can get a good laugh.”

The pair take their ministry and message about God’s love seriously — but not themselves. Photos of them together frequently have depicted them horsing around like schoolboys.

But the younger Oaks said they never fight, traveling from performance to performance in a Toyota van loaded with props, sets, costumes, and his Casio keyboard. They love life from the stage but are remarkably flexible. A few years ago, when a severe snowstorm in Maryland left them stuck at a pastor’s house before a planned church presentation, they changed plans and sang and acted in the clergyman’s living room, with the props stationed in the kitchen and fetched as needed.

Church members able to venture out arrived on snowmobiles.

“We’re like the mail,” Oaks said. “Neither snow nor rain will stop us.”

John Thomas Oaks, who always come off with a zip of energy during media chats, laughed heartily when asked if he ever experiences bad days.

“If you really want to open up that can of worms, buddy, we can go there,” he said. “But I don’t think you want to hear my terrible tales.”

He said he accepts that he and his father’s on-the-road ministry requires a certain upward look, if you will.

“This is the life we have chosen,” Oaks said. “So we’ve got to be puttin’ on the Ritz.”

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Who: Father-son performers and storytellers John Thomas and Tommy Oaks from Knoxville, Tennessee presenting their original musicals "A Whale of a Tale," "The Legend of Wiley Jake," and "Country Biscuit Jamboree."

When: 6 p.m. Feb. 7 and 8 and 1 p.m. Feb. 9.

Where: Willow Leaves of Hope, 326 Jackson St. in Hope.

Tickets: Adults, $25 for dinner and show. $15 for children 12 and younger.

Information: 812-546-0640.

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